No more hiding behind The Shield

I hope Detective Vic Mackey dies in a swarm of Armenian mafia bullets or rots away his final years in a federal prison.

Though I will miss him when he's gone.

And gone he will be — along with those unfortunate enough to enter his orbit inside Los Angeles' toughest precinct — Tuesday night when FX's "The Shield" ends its watch as the most twisted, anarchic series since "The Muppet Show."

The last time I wrote about a television show's curtain call was last year as "The Wire" ended its run. That show remains television's high-water mark, but "The Shield" nearly matches it step for step artistically and in some ways surpasses "The Wire" in its scope.

Never a ratings giant, "The Shield" carries a dedicated cult following. I am one who has drank the Kool-Aid given to me by "Shield" creator Shawn Ryan.

"The Shield" tells the story of a fictional precinct called "the Barn," given the name because it was once a simple old church, located in what resembles post-apocalyptic Tijuana, but is really modern-day Los Angeles.

The narrative is centered around a cadre of anti-gang coppers known as the Strike Team. The unit was formed to interdict rival gangs eating up Los Angeles' young and spitting them out in bloody heaps onto the streets.

The Strike Team, led by the bald, muscle-pumped Vic Mackey (the always-amazing-except-when-he's-in-a-Fantastic-Four-movie Michael Chiklis), is a close-knit group hand-picked by Mackey himself. What begins as a community policing initiative turns into a violent power grab by Mackey and his crew.

The Strike Team played by the rules until the rules got in the way. They shook down pimps, gang bangers, drug dealers, drug lords, drug mules, mobsters, and pocketed the money. They played gangs off each other to hide crime numbers and pad their own wallets. The brass was happy, Vic and his crew were happy.

That was until Vic decided to shoot in the face an undercover detective tasked with exposing his gig.

The terrible beauty of "The Shield" lies in its tight construction. The pilot's first five minutes show the team raiding a drug house, culminating in the cold-blooded killing of the mole. From that point, the plot splinters into innumerable directions, but always coalesces around that one truly unforgivable sin, for that Mackey and his team must stand trial.

Until "The Shield" premiered in 2002, FX was a sad joke of sitcom reruns and aborted original programs which disappeared from week to week. "The Shield" gave FX credibility, and paved the way for the likes of "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me."

"The Shield" is not for everyone. It moves at warp speed, bullied along by a cinéma vérité engine and sordid set pieces. As jaded as I am when exposed to wretched sex and violence, the show has caused me to bolt up from the couch on more than one occasion.

Its salacious content always comes with a payoff. The writers realize that if they put you through seeing a beloved male character orally raped at gun point by gang bangers in Season 3, then the fallout of such an action had better resonate in each episode from then on. As far as I know, male rape is rarely dealt with in any medium, let alone so intelligently within the parameters of a television show.

The series looks beyond the comfortable cops shows of the past for its influences and digs deep into the tough-guy worlds of crime novelists such as James Ellroy and Jim Thompson. In Vic Mackey, we also see the shadows of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's rebellious heroes, who reach so high and fall so far.

Sure, the detectives showcased in "NYPD Blue" would let a racial slur slip here and there, and may have fudged the law a bit to suit their needs, but the cops present in "The Shield" have created their own social order in which the rule of law is at best manipulated and at worst jettisoned all together. In this world compassion is weakness, empathy is folly and strength (or the illusion of it) is necessity.

Much like "The Sopranos," the end result of "The Shield" will be weighed by how its creators handle the fate of its main character. Was Vic Mackey placed in an impossible position and unjustly punished for his resulting actions? Or is he a monster, who preys on the weak while spitting on the Constitution?

The easy answer is both. Easy answers, thankfully, don't exist in "The Shield."

I will miss you, Vic Mackey. You vicious, heroic bastard.

Reach reporter Chris Conradat 776-4471

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